Happiness seems to be running a close second behind presidential politics in the nation's media sweepstakes this season. When, during one recent week, two network morning shows featured authors of new happiness books plugging their works and ABC's 20/20 devoted its entire hour to the subject, there could be no denying the status that happiness has attained as one of the year's hottest topics.
I greet this flood of interest with mixed emotions. For a nation caught on the treadmill of work and spend, I'm glad we're being reminded — as those TV programs underscored — that happiness won't be found among the aisles of a department store. And yet, as a psychologist, I'm troubled by the way parents' preoccupation with their children's happiness hurts both generations, and I fear that so much media attention fuels this obsessive focus.
Indeed, over the past 20 years, "I just want my kids to be happy" — what I call the happiness creed — has become a kind of sacred star in the galaxy of parenting wisdom. When I ask moms and dads what they want for their children, happiness is the answer I most often hear.
Has the attitude trickled down? I surveyed 100 middle school students two years ago, asking what they thought their parents wanted most for them, that they be smart, successful, happy or good. Seventy percent selected "happy." The media spotlight on happiness is apt to reinforce that message, for youth and parents both.
And that's the problem. Few parents seem to know that the search for authentic happiness embodies an essential paradox: to find happiness, we must let it go. It can't be grasped or planned or choreographed. To summon it into our lives, above and beyond the constraints of genetic predisposition, we must pursue it as a side effect, a byproduct of living life in certain ways.
Decades of research have revealed those ways, the key ingredients that predict happy lives. In rearing children, we must inculcate the ingredients — gratitude, optimism, acts of loving kindness and more — without promoting happiness itself. To do otherwise, to embrace the ubiquitous creed — I just want my kids to be happy — sets children up for anything but bliss.
In my counseling office, I've consoled too many youngsters wracked with guilt and shame over their inability to be cheerier than they are, thinking themselves a disappointment to their happiness-obsessed parents. I've commiserated with teens angered and upset by the unwillingness of teachers to accommodate their every whim the way their parents do at home — parents who just want them to be happy.
And I've witnessed kids lacking the resilience to face ordinary challenges because mom and dad move too quickly to keep a smile on a son's or daughter's face. ("You're upset, dear. Let's go shopping. You'll feel better. … "). These parents forget that resilience only develops through the practice of confronting adversity. Is it any surprise that college counseling centers report greater numbers of freshmen coming in for help than was seen in decades past? Or that anxiety problems have surpassed relationship problems as the leading complaint students bring to their counselors?
My message to parents is always this: Even at the finest dining rooms, happiness is never on the menu. Other things are, and if we select wisely, happiness, in the form of pleasure, will be ours. Nor does happiness appear on life's menu. It falls to parents, when children are young, to select on their kids' behalf, setting a pattern in thought and action that will deliver to the lucky offspring, in time, the joy of authentic happiness. What's required of parents is faith and patience and a willingness to forsake the dangerous happiness creed.
Psychologist Aaron Cooper (SESP73) of Chicago is a staff member at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. He is co-author of I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy: Why You Shouldn't Say It, Why You Shouldn't Think It, What You Should Embrace Instead (Late August Press, 2008).
We're always on the lookout for fresh alumni insights. If you'd like to submit an essay, visit our web site for guidelines.